How the Modern Modeling Agency Came to Be

Photo by FordModels.com

This was a precursor for what would become the protocol by which models were paid for the rest of the century, but as Natálie [Nickerson] put it to Eileen [Ford] in their late-night Barbizon conversations, the system was back to front. According to Eileen, Natálie told her, “Models were treated as if they worked for the agencies, instead of the agencies working for them. There was too much sink-or-swim. Models needed to know exactly where they had to be for a job, and what they were supposed to bring with them, and the big agencies were not efficient in making sure their girls knew even such simple things. There was no career planning, no special training or care, no help with hair or makeup—no real system at all.”

So the two women decided to work out a system together. Eileen would act as secretary and booker to Natálie and to another model, Inga Lindgren, a Swedish beauty with high-arching eyebrows and meticulously manicured nails. Each model would pay Eileen $65 per month for her secretarial assistance and for making phone bookings, while Natálie would act as a discreet publicist and drummer-up of business, quietly recommending the energy and efficiency of Eileen’s services to other models. “I realized,” Natálie explained to Michael Gross, “that for any new operation to be successful, they had to have at least one top girl, and I was the model of the moment.” Natálie beat the bushes well. Eileen started working for her and Lindgren in the fall of 1946, and by March of the following year Natálie’s word of mouth and Eileen’s proven efficiency had attracted the signing of seven additional successful models—high-flying women who were all fed up with how men were handling their business. Each newcomer paid Eileen a further $65 for her services, which took her monthly income to almost $600—some $7,000 per year.

Robert Lacey writing in Vanity Fair about the history of Ford Models. Started by a pair of newlyweds in post-World War II Manhattan, Ford Models quickly became one of the most powerful agencies in the business and helped “launch the era of the supermodel.” Lacey’s Vanity Fair piece is adapted from his forthcoming book, Model Woman: Eileen Ford and the Business of Beauty.

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